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China’s smartphone giant Oppo ratchets up AR push

Tech companies around the world are still identifying the “next big thing” enabled by 5G connections. Some, such as Oppo, are betting it will be augmented reality.

The Chinese smartphone firm showcased its progress in AR at a Tuesday event swarmed by hundreds of reporters, analysts, and partners in Shenzhen. Green strobe light, the color of its brand, beamed as vice president Liu Chang unveiled the Oppo AR Glass 2021, a lightweight headset slightly chunkier than regular glasses.

Still in the concept phase, the headset comes with fisheye cameras, tracks hands in milliseconds, and can supposedly simulate the experience of watching a 90-inch screen from three meters away.

The concept product is the result of Oppo’s three-year-plan, unveiled last year, to spend 50 billion yuan ($7.62 billion) on futuristic tech including AR.

Smartphone makers from Xiaomi to Huawei are embracing AR as they design headsets that can tether to smartphones, taking advantage of the latter’s computing power. The Oppo AR Glass 2021, for instance, is designed to link to the Oppo Find X2 Pro which contains a Snapdragon 865 chipset.

It’s unclear when Oppo’s AR glasses will hit the shelf, but the firm is actively building the ecosystem needed for mass-market adoption, from working with content providers like video streaming site iQiyi to launching a developer initiative next year to make development tools widely available.

At the same event, Oppo also flaunted a concept phone with a “scrolling” OLED screen that could make an alternative to existing foldable phones. Oppo declined to disclose who the display maker is.

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Despite global headwinds, Chinese hardware startups remain to take on the world

Bill Zhang lowered himself into lunges on a squishy mat as he explained to me the benefits of the full-body training suit he was wearing. We were in his small, modest office in Xili, a university area in Shenzhen that’s also home to many hardware makers. The connected muscle stimulator attached to the suit, called Balanx, is designed to bring so-called electronic muscle stimulation, which is said to help improve metabolism and burn fat.

“We are not really aiming at Chinese consumers at this point,” said Zhang, who started Balanx in 2014. “The suit is for the more savvy consumers in the West.”

Prospects for hardware makers were looking bright until two years ago when the Trump administration began setting trade barriers on China. Relations between the two countries have been deteriorating over a series of flashpoint events, from Beijing’s policy on Hong Kong to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chinese entrepreneurs don’t expect relationships between the countries to warm up anytime soon, but many do believe the new office will make “less erratic” and “more rational” policy decisions, according to conversations TechCrunch had with seven Chinese hardware startups. Chinese tech businesses, big or small, are adapting swiftly in the new era of U.S.-China competition as they continue to woo overseas customers.

Designed in China

Zhang is just one of the many entrepreneurs looking to bring state-of-the-art Chinese hardware to the world. This generation of founders no longer hawk cheap electronic copycats, the image attached to the old “Made in China” regime. Decades of knowledge transfer, product development, manufacturing, export practice and policy support have made China a powerhouse for producing new technologies that are both edgy and still widely affordable.

The Balanx smart training suit / Source: Balanx

Anker’s power banks, Roborock’s vacuums and Huami’s fitness trackers are just a few items that have gained loyal followings in several overseas markets, not to mention global household names like Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and DJI.

Consumer sentiment is also changing. Europeans’ perception of “Made in China” quality and innovation has “improved significantly” over the last 10 to 15 years, said Frank Wang who oversees marketing at Xiaomi -backed Dreame which makes premium home appliances including cheaper alternatives to Dyson hairdryers and vacuums.

The new players are eager to replicate the success of their predecessors. They seek media attention and retail partners at international trade fairs like CES, teach themselves Facebook and Google campaigns, and court gadget lovers on crowdfunding platforms. Investors ranging from GGV Capital to Xiaomi rush to back scrappy startups that are already shipping millions of units around the globe.

For Donny Zhang, a Shenzhen-based electronics parts supplier to hardware companies, businesses have been shrinking as soon as the trade war began. “My clients are taking the brunt because the costs of procurement have increased,” he said of those who directly or indirectly deal with American firms.

While many export-led hardware businesses loathe decreasing profitability, some learn to adapt and look for a silver lining. That has unexpectedly spurred new directions for factory owners in China. Indiegogo, one of the world’s largest crowd-funding platforms, saw the changes first hand.

“Once tariffs increase, there’s not much profit margin left for manufacturers because the middlemen already eat up the bulk of their profit,” Lu Li, general manager for Indiegogo’s global strategy, told TechCrunch.

“A good solution is for factories to skip the middlemen and sell directly to consumers with their own brands. Once the goal of brand building is clear, they often come to us because they need marketing help as a first step to establish themselves as a global consumer brand.”

The trend, dubbed “direct-to-consumers” or D2C, also plays into China’s national plan to encourage manufacturing upgrade and homegrown innovations to compete globally, an initiative that began to take shape around 2015. The development naturally makes China Indiegogo’s fastest-growing region in the last two years: in the first three quarters of 2020, businesses coming from China jumped 50% year-over-year, according to Li.

Localize

Having an appealing product and brand is just the prerequisite. Ever-changing trade policies and geopolitics have forced many Chinese businesses to localize seriously, whether that means setting up a foreign entity or building a local team.

Dreame’s wireless vacuum / Source: Dreame

For Tuya, which provides IoT solutions to device makers around the world, the trade war’s effect has been “minimal” since it has operated a U.S. entity since 2015, which employs its local sales and technical support staff. Most of its research and development, however, still lies in the hands of its engineers in India and China, the latter of which can be a potential contention point, as shown by TikTok’s recent backlash in the U.S.

“The key is compliance. We have a dedicated team of security experts to work on compliance issues. For instance, we were one of the first to get GDPR certified in Europe,” said the company’s chief marketing office Eva Na.

The company’s readiness is prompted by practical needs though. Many of its clients are large Western corporations that demand strict legal compliance in vendors, so Tuya began collecting the needed certificates early on. Connecting 200,000 SKUs today, Tuya’s footprint is found in over 190 overseas countries, which account for over 60% of its business.

Well-funded Tuya may have the financial and operational capacity to sustain an overseas team; but for smaller startups, localization can be a costly and tedious learning curve. Many opted to set up a Hong Kong entity to tap the city’s status as a global financial hub and evade trade restrictions on China, an advantage of the territory that began to crumble following Beijing’s implementation of the national security law.

Balanx, the smart training suit maker, has a Hong Kong entity like many of its export-facing hardware peers. To cope with new global headwinds, it registered a virtual company in Nevada but quickly realized the entity is of little use unless it has an on-the-ground operation in the U.S.

“Many local banks would ask for utility bills and etc. if I want to open an account, which we don’t have. We realized we must have a local team,” asserted the founder.

Hope

Zhang is positive that small companies like his own will remain under the radar in spite of U.S. sanctions. “Just avoid having any government connection,” he said.

Populele, PopuMusic’s smart ukulele / Source: PopuMusic

Indeed, some of the more “benign” and niche products are continuing to thrive in their global push. PopuMusic, a Xiaomi-backed startup making smart instruments like ukulele and guitar to teach beginners, is one. “We aren’t affected by the trade war. We are in a business that’s neither threatening nor aggressive,” said Zhang Bohan, founder of PopuMusic, which counts the U.S. as one of its biggest overseas markets.

Chinese brands are also seeing their edge as the coronavirus sweeps across the globe and confines millions at home. Hardware makers like Balanx, Dreame and PopuMusic have long learned to master e-commerce and logistics in a country where online shopping is ubiquitous.

“Consumers in Europe and the U.S. are growing more accustomed to e-commerce, a bit like those in China five to eight years ago,” said Wang of Dreame.

Rather than rethinking the U.S., PopuMusic is forging further ahead by launching a new connected guitar via an Indiegogo campaign. Global expansion is at the core of the startup’s vision, the founder said. “We are global from day one. We had an English name before even coming up with a Chinese one.”

In the process of making big bucks, hardware makers may have to downplay their “Made in China” or “Designed in China” brand, said Li of Indiegogo. This could help them avoid unnecessary geopolitical complications and attention in their international push. But one has to wonder how this new generation of entrepreneurs is reckoning with their national pride. How do they deal with the mission passed down by Beijing to promote Chinese innovation in the global marketplace? It’s a line that Chinese entrepreneurs have to tread carefully in their global journey in the years to come.

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The eSIM maker powering Xiaomi’s IoT devices raises $15M

Connectivity is vital to a future managed and shaped by smart hardware, and Chinese startup Showmac Tech is proposing eSIMs as the infrastructure solution for seamless and stable communication between devices and the service providers behind.

Xiaomi accepted the proposition and doled out an investment for the startup’s angel round in 2017. Now Showmac has convinced more investors to be onboard as it banked close to 100 million yuan ($15 million) in a Series A+ round led by Addor Capital with participation from GGV Capital and Hongtai Aplus.

“We believe cellular communication will become a mainstream trend in the era of IoT. WiFi works only when it’s connected to a small number of devices, but when the number increases dramatically it becomes unreliable,” said Lily Liu, founder and chief executive of Showmac, during an interview with TechCrunch.

Unlike a traditional SIM, short for “subscriber identity module,” an eSIM doesn’t need to be on a removable card, doing away the need for the SIM card slot on a device. Rather, it will be welded onto the device’s integrated chip during assembly and is valid for different network operators. To chipmakers, Showmac’s eSIM functions like an application or software development kit (SDK), Liu observed.

The company began as a pilot project supplying eSIMs to Xiaomi’s ecosystem of connected devices and subsequently set up an entity when the solution proved its viability. Its core products today include eSIM cards for IoT devices, eSIM communication module and gateway, and connection management software as a service.

To date, Showmac has powered more than 10 million devices, around 30% of which are affiliated with Xiaomi, which through in-house development and external investments has constructed an empire of IoT partners reliant on its operating system and consumer reach.

The majority of Showmac’s clients are providers of shared goods, those of which “ownership and right to use are separate”, explained Liu, who earned a PhD in economics from China’s prestigious Huazhong University of Science and Technology. Shared bikes and Luckin’s shared coffee mugs are just a few examples.

Showmac is hardly a forerunner in the global eSIM space, but the founder believed few competitors could match it on the level of supply chain resources, thanks to its ties with Xiaomi.

“As an R&D-oriented and relatively young team, we are very fortunate to have experienced large-scale industrial activity that churns out products in the hundreds of thousands and even millions every day. [Xiaomi] has provided us with this precious opportunity,” the founder said.

With a staff of 40-50 employees across Beijing and Shenzhen, the startup is currently focusing on the Chinese market but has plans for overseas expansion in the long run.

“We are not the first to make eSIM in the world, but being in China, the center of the world’s electronics manufacturing, we are in a superior position to get things done,” suggested Liu.

The arrival of 5G is a boon to the startup, the founder believed. “5G will spurn more IoT devices and applications, giving rise to the need for IoT [devices] with cross-carrier and cross-region capabilities,” she said.

Showmac says it will spend its newly raised capital on mass-producing its integrated eSIM modules, research and development, and business development.

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China’s EV startup Xpeng pulls in $500 million Series C+

Xpeng, an electric vehicle startup run by former Alibaba executive He Xiaopeng, said Monday it has raised around $500 million in a Series C+ round to further develop models tailored to China’s tech-savvy middle-class consumers.

The announcement followed its Series C round of $400 million closed last November. A source told TechCrunch that the company’s valuation at the time had exceeded the 25 billion yuan ($3.57 billion) round raised in August 2018.

The new proceeds bring the five-year-old Chinese startup’s to-date fundings announced to $1.7 billion.

Investors in the latest round include Hong Kong-based private equity firm Aspex Management; the storied American tech hedge fund Coatue Management; China’s top private equity fund Hillhouse Capital; and Sequoia Capital China. The other existing big-name backers are Foxconn, Xiaomi, GGV Capital, Morningside Venture Capital, IDG Capital, and Primavera Capital.

Despite the sizable round, Xpeng is headed for a slew of challenges. Electric vehicle sales in China have shrunk in the wake of reduced government subsidies set in motion last year, and the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to further dampen demand as the economy weakens.

Xpeng’s Chinese rival Byton, which counts heavyweights backers like Tencent, FAW Group, and Foxconn, is already showing signs of strain as it furloughed about half of its 450 North America-based staff citing coronavirus impact. In June, the company put the brakes on production for internal reorganization.

Xpeng’s other competitors seem to have proven more resilient. In April, Nasdaq-listed Nio secured a $1 billion investment for its Chinese entity, while Li Auto ventured to file for a U.S. public listing in July.

Xpeng claims it has so far been able to withstand coronavirus challenges. In May, the company obtained a production license for its fully-owned car plant in a city near its Guangzhou headquarters, signaling its reduced dependence on manufacturing partner Haima Automobile.

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India smartphone shipments slashed in half in Q2 2020

Even the world’s second largest smartphone market isn’t immune to COVID-19.

Smartphone shipments in India fell 48% in the second quarter compared with the same period a year ago, the most drastic drop one of the rare growing markets has seen in a decade, research firm Canalys reported Friday evening.

About 17.3 million smartphone units shipped in Q2 2020, down from 33 million in Q2 2019 and 33.5 million in Q1 2020, the research firm said.

You can blame coronavirus, more than a million cases of which has been reported in India.

New Delhi ordered a nationwide lockdown in late March to contain the spread of the virus that saw all shops across the country — save for some of those that sell grocery items and pharmacies — temporarily cease operation. Even e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Flipkart were prohibited from selling smartphones and other items classified as “non-essential” by the government.

The protracted lockdown lasted until mid-May, after which the Indian government deemed that other stores and e-commerce deliveries could resume their services in much of country. New Delhi’s stringent measure explains why India’s smartphone market dipped so heavily.

China, the world’s largest smartphone market, in comparison, saw only an 18% drop in shipments in the quarter that ended in March — the period when the country was most impacted by the virus. In Q1, when India was largely not impacted by the virus, smartphone shipments grew by 4% in the country. (Globally, smartphone shipments shrank by 13% in Q1 — a figure that is projected to only slightly improve to a 12% decline this year.)

“It’s been a rocky road to recovery for the smartphone market in India,” said Madhumita Chaudhary, an analyst at Canalys. “While vendors witnessed a crest in sales as soon as markets opened, production facilities struggled with staffing shortages on top of new regulations around manufacturing, resulting in lower production output.”

Smartphone shipment estimates for the Indian market through Q1 2019 to Q1 2020 (Canalys)

Despite the lockdown, Xiaomi maintained its dominance in India. The Chinese smartphone vendor, which has been the top smartphone vendor in India since late 2018, shipped 5.3 million smartphone units in the quarter that ended in June this year and commanded 30.9% of the local market, Canalys estimated.

With 3.7 million units shipped and 21.3% market share in India, Vivo retained the second spot. Samsung, which once ruled the Indian smartphone market and has made major investments in the country in recent months, settled for the third spot with 16.8% share.

Nearly every smartphone vendor has launched new handsets in India in recent weeks as they look to recover from the downtime, and several more new smartphone launches are planned in the next month.

But for some of these players, the virus is not the only obstacle.

Anti-China sentiment has been gaining mindshare in India in recent months, ever since more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a military clash in the Himalayas in June. “Boycott China” — and variations of it — has been trending on Twitter in India as a number of people posted videos destroying Chinese-made smartphones, TVs and other products. Late last month, India also banned 59 apps and services developed by Chinese firms.

Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo, which now assumes the fourth spot in India, and other Chinese smartphone vendors command nearly 80% of the smartphone market in India.

Canalys’ Chaudhary, however, believes these smartphone firms will be able to largely avoid the backlash as “alternatives by Samsung, Nokia, or even Apple are hardly price-competitive.”

Apple, which commands only 1% of the Indian smartphone market, was the least impacted among the top 10 vendors as iPhone shipments fell just 20% year-on-year to over 250,000 in Q2 2020, Canalys said.

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China’s BYD nabs $113M to produce IGBTs, the ‘CPU of electric cars’

BYD Co., the Chinese auto giant backed by Warren Buffett, is rushing to make China self-sufficient in the production of electric vehicles. On Monday, the firm said in a filing it has secured 800 million yuan ($113 million) in a Series A+ round for its chipmaking arm, BYD Semiconductor.

At stake is the race to make so-called insulated gate bipolar transistors (IGBT), an integral silicon component in EVs’ power management system that’s at the core of BYD Semiconductor. The electronic switch is dubbed by industry experts the “CPU of an EV” for it reduces power loss and improves reliability. It’s the second-most expensive part of an EV after batteries, accounting for around 7-10% of the total cost according to market research.

BYD is fighting a fierce competition against Germany’s semiconductor giant Infineon Technologies AG, which produced 58% of the IGBTs used in China’s electric cars in 2019. BYD finished with an 18% share that year, noted a report from Citic Securities.

The prospects of IGBT production are bright, as the technology not only powers a booming EV industry worldwide but is also used in other high-energy applications such as air conditioners, refrigerators, and high-speed trains. The global market for IGBTs is estimated to near 10 billion yuan ($1.41 billion) in 2020 and quadruple to almost 40 billion yuan by 2025, according to the Citic report.

The outsize funding arrived just two months after Shenzhen-traded BYD hived its chip unit off into an independent company ahead of a separate public listing. Due to oversubscription from investors, the subsidiary raised the new round on the heel of its 1.9 billion yuan ($270 million) Series A closed in late May.

Parent company BYD holds a 72.3% stake in the chip arm following the two funding rounds, which have lifted the valuation of the subsidiary to 10.2 billion yuan ($1.44 billion).

As the only Chinese company that can produce IGBTs independently, the semiconductor maker has drawn heavyweight backers across the board. Its investors range from Sequoia China and state-backed CICC Capital from the Series A round, to Korean conglomerate SK Group, smartphone maker Xiaomi, Lenovo Group, ARM, China’s largest semiconductor foundry SMIC, and investment affiliates of Chinese carmakers SAIC and BAIC in the latest A+ round.

BYD started out as a manufacturer of electronics components in 1995 and has since expanded into automobiles and renewable energy. Headquartered in Shenzhen, it powers all of the city’s electric buses and taxis. It’s also ramped up expansion into overseas markets as China scales back state subsidies on electric cars.

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China Roundup: A blow to US-listed Chinese firms and TikTok’s new global face

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. It’s been a tumultuous week for Chinese tech firms abroad: Huawei’s mounting pressure from the U.S., a big blow to U.S.-listed Chinese firms, and TikTok’s high-profile new boss.

China tech abroad

Further decoupling

Over the years, American investors have been pumping billions of dollars into Chinese firms listed in the U.S., from giants like Alibaba and Baidu to emerging players like Pinduoduo and Bilibili. That could change soon with the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, a new bill passed this week with bipartisan support to tighten accounting standards on foreign companies, with the obvious target being China.

“For too long, Chinese companies have disregarded U.S. reporting standards, misleading our investors. Publicly listed companies should all be held to the same standards, and this bill makes commonsense changes to level the playing field and give investors the transparency they need to make informed decisions,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen who introduced the legislation.

Here’s what the legislation is about:

1) Foreign companies that are out of compliance with the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board for three years in a row will be delisted from U.S. stock exchanges.

PCAOB, which was set up in 2002 as a private-sector nonprofit corporation overseen by the SEC, is meant to inspect audits of foreign firms listed in the U.S. to prevent fraud and wrongdoing.

The rule has not sat well with foreign accounting firms and their local regulators, so over time PCAOB has negotiated multiple agreements with foreign counterparts that allowed it to perform audit inspections. China is one of the few countries that has not been cooperating with the PCAOB.

2) The bill will also require public companies in the U.S. to disclose whether they are owned or controlled by a foreign government, including China’s communist government.

The question now is whether we will see Chinese companies give in to the new rules or relocate to bourses outside the U.S.

The Chinese firms still have a three-year window to figure things out, but they are getting more scrutiny already. Most recently, Nasdaq announced to delist Luckin, the Chinese coffee challenger that admitted to fabricating $310 million in sales.

Those that do choose to leave the U.S. will probably find a warmer welcome in Hong Kong, attracting investors closer to home who are more acquainted with their businesses. Alibaba, for instance, already completed a secondary listing in Hong Kong last year as the city began letting investors buy dual-class shares, a condition that initially prompted many Chinese internet firms to go public in the U.S.

TikTok gets a talent boost 

The long-awaited announcement is here: TikTok has picked its new chief executive, and taking the helm is Disney’s former head of video streaming, Kevin Mayer.

It’s understandable that TikTok would want a global face for its fast-growing global app, which has come under scrutiny from foreign governments over concerns of its data practices and Beijing’s possible influence.

Curiously, Mayer will also take on the role of the chief operating officer of parent company ByteDance . A closer look at the company announcement reveals nuances in the appointment: Kelly Zhang and Lidong Zhang will continue to lead ByteDance China as its chief executive officer and chairman respectively, reporting directly to ByteDance’s founder and global CEO Yiming Zhang, as industry analyst Matthew Brennan acutely pointed out. That means ByteDance’s China businesses Douyin and Today’s Headlines, the cash cows of the firm, will remain within the purview of the two Chinese executives, not Mayer.

Huawei in limbo following more chip curbs

Huawei is in limbo after the U.S. slapped more curbs on the Chinese telecoms equipment giant, restricting its ability to procure chips from foreign foundries that use American technologies. The company called the rule “arbitrary and pernicious,” while it admitted that the attack would impact its business.

Vodafone to help Oppo expand in Europe 

As Huawei faces pressure abroad due to the Android ban, other Chinese phone makers have been steadily making headway across the world. One of them is Oppo, which just announced a partnership with Vodafone to bring its smartphones to the mobile carrier’s European markets.

All of China’s top AI firms now on U.S. entity list 

The U.S. has extended sanctions to more Chinese tech firms to include CloudWalk, which focuses on developing facial recognition technology. This means all of the “four dragons of computer vision” in China, as the local tech circle collectively calls CloudWalk, SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu, have landed on the U.S. entity list.

China tech back home

China’s new trillion-dollar plan to seize the tech crown (Bloomberg)

China has a new master plan to invest $1.4 trillion in everything from AI to 5G in what it dubs the “new infrastructure” initiative.

Fitbit rival Amazfit works on a reusable mask

The smartwatch maker is eyeing a transparent, self-disinfecting mask, becoming the latest Chinese tech firm to jump on the bandwagon to develop virus-fighting tech.

ByteDance moves into venture capital investment

The TikTok parent bankrolled financial AI startup Lingxi with $6.2 million, marking one of its first investments for purely monetary returns rather than for an immediate strategic purpose.

Bilibili is the new Youtube of China

The once-obscure video site for anime fans is now in the mainstream with a whopping 172 million monthly user base.

Xiaomi’s investment powerhouse reaches 300 companies 

It’s part of the smartphone giant’s plan to conquer the world of smart home devices and wearables.

Alibaba pumps $1.4 billion into content and services for IoT

Like Amazon, Alibaba has a big ambition in the internet of things.

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AngelList India head Utsav Somani launches micro VC fund to back 30 early-stage startups

As investors get cautious about writing new checks to early stage startups in India amid the coronavirus outbreak, AngelList’s head in India is betting that this is the right time to back young firms.

On Wednesday, Utsav Somani announced iSeed, a micro VC fund to back up at least 30 startups over the course of two years. iSeed, which is not affiliated with AngelList, is Somani’s maiden venture fund.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Somani said he would write checks of $150,000 each to up to 35 early-stage startups in any tech category and enable his portfolio firms’ access to global investors and their knowledge pool. The fund will not participate in a startup’s follow-on rounds.

iSeed counts a range of high-profile investors, including Naval Ravikant and Babak Nivi, co-founders of AngelList, who are some of the biggest backers of the fund.

Others include founders of Xiaomi, Jake Zeller, a partner at AngelList and Spearhead, Sheel Mohnot, general partner at 500 Fintech, Brian Tubergen of CoinList, Deepak Shahdadpuri, managing director at DST Global, and Kavin Bharti Mittal of Hike.

AngelList launched syndicates program in India in 2018. The platform has been used for 140 investments in India since, including over 20 follow-ons in which firms such as Tiger Global, Sequoia Capital, Ribbit Capital participated.

Somani has also been an angel investor in more than a dozen startups including BharatPe, a firm that it is helping small businesses accept online payments and access working capital, and Jupiter, a neo-bank.

“I like the work AngelList India and Utsav have done since the launch. He brings energy, access and judgement to the table — the things to look for in a first-time fund manager,” said Ravikant in a statement.

Micro VCs is becoming a popular trend in the United States. Ryan Hoover of ProductHunt, for instance, maintains Weekend Fund. Somani said he has appreciated how others have been able to institutionalize the angel investing practice. According to Crunchbase, U.S. investors raised 148 sub-$100 million VC funds in 2018.

Running a micro-fund by leveraging AngelList’s infrastructure has also eased the burden starting such a venture creates for an investor, he said.

Indian startups could use any fund that backs early startups. Early-stage firms have consistently struggled to find enough backers in India, according to data from research firm Tracxn .

And that struggle is now common across the industry. More than two-thirds of startups in the country today are on the verge of running out of all their money in less than three months, according to a survey conducted by industry body Nasscom.

Somani said he is optimistic that great companies will continue to be born out of tough times. He said even his investors were aware of the pandemic and still stood by the fund.

“If you look at the market, we are seeing a number of layoffs. These are the people who would be creating jobs for others in the years to come. Entrepreneurship might be the only option for them.

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Fitbit’s Chinese rival Amazfit mulls a transparent, self-disinfecting mask

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a wave of Chinese companies with manufacturing operations to produce virus-fighting equipment: Shenzhen-based electric vehicle giant BYD quickly moved to launch what it claims to be the world’s largest mask plant; Hangzhou-based voice intelligence startup Rokid is making thermal imaging glasses targeted at the US market; and many more.

The latest of such efforts comes from Huami, the NASDAQ-listed wearables startup that makes Xiaomi’s Mi Bands and sells its own fitness tracking watches under the Amazfit brand in more than 70 countries. In a phone interview with TechCrunch, the firm said it is developing a see-through plastic mask with built-in ultraviolet lights that can disinfect filters within 10 minutes when connected to a power supply through a USB port. The caveat is that the lights only sanitize the inside of the mask and users still have to clean the outer surface themselves.

The Aeri concept comes with built-in ultraviolet lights that can disinfect filters within 10 minutes when connected to a power supply through a USB port.

Called Aeri, the mask uses removable filters that are on par with N95 filtration capacity. If the concept materializes, each filter could last up to a month and a half, significantly longer than the average life of surgical masks and N95 respirators. The modular design allows for customized accessories such as a fan for breathable comfort, hence the mask’s name Aeri, a homophone of “airy”.

Aeri started from the premise that wearing masks could thwart the increasingly common adoption of facial recognition. That said, imaging companies have been working on biometric upgrades to allow analyses of other facial features such as irises or the tip of noses.

Aeri might still have a market appeal though, argued Pengtao Yu, vice president of industrial design at Huami. “Whether people need to unlock their phones or not, they want to see each other’s faces at social occasions,” said Yu, the California-based Chinese designer who had served clients including Nest Labs, Roku, GoPro and Huawei prior to joining Huami.

Huami’s U.S. operation, which focuses on research and development, opened in 2014 and now counts a dozen of employees.

Many companies turning to pandemic-fighting manufacturing have taken a hit from their core business, but Huami has managed to stay afloat. Its Q1 revenue was up 36% year-over-year to hit $154 million, although net income decreased to $2.7 million from $10.6 million. Its stocks have been declining, however, sliding from a high point of $16 in January to around $10 in mid-May.

Huami is in the process of prototyping the Aeri masks. In Shenzhen, which houses the wearables company’s headquarters, the development cycle for hardware products — from ideation to market rollout — takes as short as 6-12 months thanks to the city’s rich supply chain resources, said Yu.

Huami hasn’t priced Aeri at this early stage, but Yu admitted that the masks are targeting the “mass consumer market” around the world, not only for protection against viruses but also everyday air pollution, rather than appealing to medical workers. Given Huami’s history of making wearables at thin margins, it won’t be surprising that Aeri will be competitively priced.

The Aeri project is part of Huami’s pivot to enter the general health sector beyond pure fitness monitoring. The company has recently teamed up with a laboratory led by Dr. Zhong Nanshan, the public face of China’s fight against COVID-19, to track respiratory diseases using wearables. It’s also in talks with the German public health authority to collaborate on a smartwatch-powered virus monitoring app, the company told TechCrunch.

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Xiaomi launches Mi Commerce in India to boost sales amid lockdown

Xiaomi today launched a new e-commerce service in India that allows people in the nation to easily browse and order its handsets and other products from nearby physical retail stores as the Chinese giant rushes to kickstart its sales in its biggest overseas market.

Dubbed Mi Commerce, the service allows people to locate nearby stores that are either run by Xiaomi or those that have tie-ups with the company and browse smartphones, TVs, electric lamps, and a range of other products.

Users can express their “interest” to purchase the selected item through the app that would prompt the retail store to place a confirmation call. The retail store would deliver the item and then process the payment, Xiaomi said. A spokesperson told TechCrunch that Mi Commerce is available only in India currently.

Xiaomi has also launched a WhatsApp Business account that operates on a similar flow. Users can send a message to +91 8861826286 to initiate the conversation with retail stores through Facebook-owned service.

The shift to what is often described in the industry as an online to offline model comes as Xiaomi, like other smartphone vendors, looks to make up its lost sales in recent weeks. India ordered a nationwide lockdown in late March that shut retail shops, and restricted e-commerce firms to only service grocery orders.

According to Hong Kong-headquartered research firm Counterpoint, no smartphone units were sold in India, the world’s second largest smartphone market, in April.

In a call with reporters, Xiaomi executives said they were hopeful that the Indian market would attain at least 80% of its momentum by the end of the year. Counterpoint slashed its smartphone projections for India last month, saying it now expects the market to shrink by 10% this year. Indian smartphone market has consistently grown year-by-year in the last decade.

Mi Commerce would additionally also help potential customers maintain social distance and avoid errands to stores that would otherwise expose them to novel coronavirus.

Xiaomi said it was working with the government for an update on the resumption of smartphone manufacturing plants that are also shut since the lockdown was ordered in March. The company executives said they currently have inventory to meet demand for three to four months.

The Chinese giant is also providing working capital to its retail store partners, it said.

Samsung, which lost the tentpole position in India’s smartphone market to Xiaomi in 2018 and recently the second spot to Vivo, did not respond to TechCrunch’s request for comment on any similar efforts it has made — or not made — in India.

On Monday, e-commerce firms including Amazon and Walmart in India resumed their service for people in more than 80% zip codes in the country. A lockdown would remain in place for another two weeks in India, but New Delhi has eased some restrictions.

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